'Defund my butt': Democrats battle over left-wing policy demands even as they agree Biden should focus on the economy and healthcare

  • As the Democratic Party processes its devastating losses in down-ballot races across the country this cycle, prominent voices within the party are waging public battles over what went wrong. 
  • But there's relatively broad consensus among Democratic operatives that the party should refocus itself on progressive policies that enjoy wide support. 
  • Left-wing pollsters and operatives say the 2020 results show Democrats can't win durable majorities in the House and Senate without appealing aggressively to white working-class voters. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

As the Democratic Party processes its devastating losses in down-ballot races across the country this cycle, prominent voices within the party are waging public battles over what went wrong. 

Moderate Democrats blame progressives for sinking the party's candidates in red and purple parts of the country by embracing unpopular left-wing proposals that Republicans have branded as "socialist," including calls to defund law enforcement and ban fracking.

High-profile progressives, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, have accused centrists of "finger-pointing," running tactically weak campaigns, and silencing Black and Brown activists and the party's base. 

But there's a relative consensus among progressive operatives that Democrats need to refocus themselves on policies that enjoy broad support particularly among crucial white working-class voters, like investing in green jobs and lowering prescription drug costs.

A case study in 'defund the police' 

Perhaps no left-wing demand has gotten more attention than calls to "defund" the police. The movement to reallocate law enforcement funding to social services emerged with force amid the nationwide protests following George Floyd's death in police custody in May. 

Some activists are calling to abolish police forces, others want reform and new investments in community policing. Democratic lawmakers and candidates' responses to the calls run the gamut. While then-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden called for reforms to "root out systemic racism" and invest in marginalized communities, he rejected "defunding" law enforcement. Many centrists called for reform and increased investment in police forces, while progressives like Ocasio-Cortez embraced reallocating resources to social services.

At the same time, the Black Lives Matter protests last spring prompted a significant surge in voter registrations among Democrats and independents, and Americans' support for BLM skyrocketed. But approval of the movement dropped in the summer, as both peaceful protests and rioting continued and President Donald Trump ratcheted up his anti-BLM messaging. 

"White voters' support for Black Lives Matter protests began to wane and the 'law and order' messaging from the president started to trickle down in the local races," Basil Smikle, a Democratic political consultant and former executive director of the New York State Democratic Party, told Business Insider. 

Smikle agrees with South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, who's argued that calls to defund the police are "killing our party" and also undermining the Black Lives Matter movement. Clyburn recently compared the slogan to the controversial "burn, baby, burn" chant used by some activists during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Red and purple-district Democrats are urging a re-thinking of messaging on policing and criminal justice reform. 

"When we want to talk about funding social services, and ensuring good engagement in community policing, let's talk about what we are for," Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia moderate who won a close reelection race, told Democratic House colleagues during a tense call last week.

The centrist think tank Third Way argued in a post-election memo released Wednesday that moderate Democrats in purple and red states and districts were "unable to escape" the impact of Republican attack ads that accused them of supporting socialism, defunding the police, Medicare for All, and a ban on fracking. 

Meanwhile, progressives say Democratic losses are less about ideology and policy and more about a failure of campaign tactics. Ocasio-Cortez has argued in recent days that swing district Democrats didn't run "full-fledged" campaigns, aren't "online" enough, and thus became "sitting ducks."

The Democrats' down-ballot losses this cycle were so severe, it's likely their failure can be chalked up to a whole host of issues beyond policy and messaging, from a lack of door-knocking, to faulty polling, to underinvestment in digital. 

While Trump reshaped the Republican Party and effectively nationalized GOP messaging and attacks on the left, Democrats ran a much more ideologically and demographically diverse set of candidates. Democrats in competitive races who wanted to focus on healthcare, the pandemic, and other kitchen table issues were up against Republicans who spent much of their time talking about "radical socialism." 

"A discussion around defunding the police — nobody can positively say that was helpful to the swing district Democrat in 2020, there just isn't a shred of evidence," Ian Russell, a former deputy executive director of the DCCC, told Business Insider. 

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, slammed calls to defund law enforcement in a recent interview with the right-leaning Washington Examiner and repeated his condemnation in a tweet on Wednesday.  

"Defund the police? Defund my butt," Manchin tweeted. "I'm a proud West Virginia Democrat. We are the party of working men and women. We want to protect Americans' jobs & healthcare. We do not have some crazy socialist agenda, and we do not believe in defunding the police." 

Ocasio-Cortez was quick to respond publicly, tweeting a photo of herself on Thursday staring sternly at the back of Manchin's head during the president's 2019 State of the Union address.

 

But some of the party's losses struck close to home for Ocasio-Cortez. Republicans won Democratic Rep. Max Rose's Staten Island seat after spending months accusing the politically moderate military veteran of being anti-police and "a puppet of defund the police liberals." Rose marched in a June BLM protest, but adamantly rejected calls to cut law enforcement funding.

In 2018, Rose flipped his House seat from red to blue, but this year Trump grew his share of the vote in the conservative New York City borough, which is home to a large community of police officers and firefighters. 

Ocasio-Cortez praised Rose after he conceded his race on Thursday, calling him a "great colleague & friend, despite all our differences" who "bravely" stuck up for Black Lives Matter activists. 

Smikle called Rose's race a "good example of the dynamic across the country," where Trump and the GOP's branding of Democrats as socialist and anti-police worked against a conservative Democrat. 

Re-focusing on '90% issues' 

Democrats are quick to point out that many transformative progressive policies — ranging from public broadband to a federal jobs guarantee — attract wide support even in red states. Smikle pointed to the battleground state of Florida, which recently passed referendums raising the minimum wage and restoring ex-felons' right to vote. 

But operatives say a left-wing slogan like "defund the police" was clearly weaponized by the GOP this cycle to paint Democrats across the country with a broad brush.

Politics have become increasingly nationalized in recent years. And for better or worse, catchy slogans like "defund the police" and "Green New Deal" — or "build the wall" and "lock her up" — cut through the noise of an election year more effectively than a nuanced policy position. 

"The reality now is that whenever any elected Democrat goes out and says something that's unpopular, unless the rest of the party very forcefully pushes back — in a way that I think is actually very rare within the Democratic Party currently — every Democrat will face an electoral penalty," David Shor, a data scientists who consults for Democratic campaigns, told New York Magazine. 

But both progressive and centrist Democrats agree that their party needs stronger national messaging on the economy and healthcare — two of the most important issues to voters. 

Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives argue candidates need bolder economic and healthcare proposals, rather than simply relying on an anti-Trump platform featuring calls for civility and bipartisanship. 

"The message had to be more than 'I get along across the aisle' — it has to be 'here's what I will fight for for you,'" Rebecca Katz, founder of the progressive consulting firm New Deal Strategies, told Business Insider. "You look at what's happening in 2020 and not having a clear economic message is malpractice … They didn't even connect healthcare to the economy. People are drowning in healthcare costs and the argument was always about accessibility and not about the costs." 

Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a centrist just reelected to a second term in a Michigan district Trump won, agrees that the party's national messaging is "mushy" and is calling for "concrete and specific" policies — she suggested working to slash the price of insulin — to address health and economic issues in the first months of the Biden administration.

"If we do not do something that helps people's pocketbooks or their kids in the first couple of months, I think people are going to lose faith in government being able to do anything in their lives," Slotkin told Politico in an interview published Friday. 

Sean McElwee, a progressive consultant and founder of Data for Progress, argued that "there's egg on everybody's faces" in the party. But the lesson he took away from this cycle is that Democratic politicians need to stop acting like left-wing activists.

Movement activists should be focused on changing "hearts and minds," not changing progressive lawmakers' rhetoric, in part because politicizing their demands hurts their cause. And Democrats, McElwee argued, should focus on pushing policies that their constituents support. 

"It would be helpful for the movement if politicians broadly did not engage with and push their ideas because as soon as the idea becomes a political football it makes it harder to win because people go into their partisan corners," he said.  

Election data shows that "education polarization" worsened this year, meaning that non-college educated white voters skewed even more towards Republicans, while college-educated white voters skewed more towards Democrats. Unfortunately for Democrats, white working-class voters have outsized political power as a result of the structure of the House, Senate, and Electoral College.

This reality has convinced even left-wing operatives that Democrats need to realign their agenda to more aggressively convert rural white voters. 

McElwee agrees that Democratic politicians need to focus on the "90% issues" that appeal across demographic and ideological divides. 

"If we want to change people's minds about the role of government in society, we need to find popular policies where they can see the government benefiting them completely," McElwee said. He added that John Kasich, the former Republican governor of Ohio, was right when he argued Democrats need to stop talking about socialism and focus on free universal broadband. 

If Democrats want to build the ever-elusive multi-racial working-class coalition that can overcome the structural bias against their party, they'll need to convince voters that their economic interests are aligned, Smikle argued. 

"The conversations they need to have with [rural white] voters is that the policies that help poor populations in urban areas can help poor populations in suburban and rural communities too," he said. 

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